Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include why Sidney Crosby has a stranglehold on the Hart Trophy; what Lee Stempniak found surprising about his new center; how Claude Giroux has vaulted among the NHL scoring leaders; what Ray Ferraro felt as he watched his son Landon make his NHL debut in the same rink where he made his NHL exit; and notes on the Paul Ranger hit, the “distinct kicking motion” and Joel Quenneville’s eventual place in history.
FIRST PERIOD: Crosby, finally, will win the Hart Trophy again
As soon as the subject came up, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma knocked on wood – leaning back and intentionally banging his head on a shelf in a dressing room. It’s hard to blame him, after what Sidney Crosby has been through over the past few years, knowing how quickly one hit or one puck can change everything.
But it’s safe to say now: For the first time since 2006-07, for only the second time in his career, Crosby will win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
No matter how the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association define “MVP” – the liberal “best player in the league” or the literal “most valuable to his team” – there will be no debate. No matter what happens from now until the end of the regular season, there will be no change.
Crosby has been that dominant, and he has carried the Penguins – who have lost 419 man games to injuries, by far the most in the league – to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
“This season, to this point in time, I don’t think it’s a question,” Bylsma said. “There’s certainly some other players that are really good players and have done some good things this year. But I think he’s skating away with it.”
Injuries probably have cost Crosby at least two Hart Trophies, plus at least two Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s scoring champion and at least one Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s goal-scoring champion.
Crosby was running away with everything in 2010-11, when he had 32 goals and 66 points exactly halfway through the season. But then he missed the rest of the season because of a concussion, and then he played only 22 games in 2011-12.
He was running away with the Hart and Art Ross races in 2012-13, when he had 15 goals and 56 points exactly three quarters through the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule. But then he missed the rest of the season because of a broken jaw.
Many think he should have won the Hart, anyway. He won the Ted Lindsay Award, which the NHL Players’ Association gives to the “most outstanding player.” But he lost the Hart to Alex Ovechkin, whose goal-scoring binge put the Washington Capitals in the playoffs, and he lost the Art Ross to Martin St. Louis.
Now he has 33 goals and 91 points in 68 games. He ranks fifth in goals, 13 behind the leader, Ovechkin. He ranks first in points – 17 more than anyone else. If he maintains or increases that gap, it will be the biggest since Jaromir Jagr beat Teeme Selanne by 20 points in 1998-99. He hasn’t missed a game, at least not yet.
He has played more than 82 percent of the season and counting. Even if he didn’t play another game, the door already would not be as open for someone like Ovechkin as it was last season. Even if he didn’t record another point, a pursuer like Phil Kessel, Ryan Getzlaf or Claude Giroux would have to go on a tear to catch him in the scoring race – still possible, but less so by the day.
Those numbers don’t account for his all-around game, or how he lost right winger Pascal Dupuis to a knee injury, or how other key players like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and James Neal and Paul Martin have missed chunks of time because of injuries and illnesses and suspensions. Only the Boston Bruins – winners of 10 in a row – have been better in the East.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury deserves credit for how well he has played. The organization deserves credit for developing and acquiring capable replacements. But one of the arguments against Crosby last year was that the Penguins continued to win while their captain was out, and so it would be unfair this year not to recognize the reverse. The Penguins have continued to win largely because of their captain.
“I don’t think there’s any question where he’s at right now, in terms of his game and being healthy and seeing that on the ice,” Bylsma said.
Crosby hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 2009, either. If he can stay healthy – that sound you hear is Bylsma knocking on wood again – he will enter the playoffs at full strength for the first time since 2010. He missed the playoffs in 2011; the Penguins lost in the first round. He came back in mid-March and wasn’t himself in 2012; the Penguins lost in the first round. He missed the final 12 games last year.
With a plastic guard protecting his jaw in the first two rounds, he still put up seven goals and 15 points in 10 games somehow. But then he took the guard off – and took a punch to the jaw from Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara – and played poorly in the Eastern Conference final. He didn’t record a point. The Penguins were swept.
“You definitely want to be playing well and playing the right way heading into the playoffs,” Crosby said. “Obviously last year coming off the jaw, going right into the playoffs, it’s a little difficult. It’s not something that you usually think about that much, but having gone through the last few years what I’ve had to, it’d be welcomed.”
SECOND PERIOD: Stempniak goes from Flames to Penguins, Hudler to Crosby
Lee Stempniak spent almost three seasons playing right wing for the Calgary Flames alongside centers like Matt Stajan and Jiri Hudler. Then came March 5. The Penguins acquired him at the trade deadline.
After one game on the third line with Brandon Sutter, he ended up on the first line with Crosby. Just like that, he went from one of the worst teams in the NHL to one of the best, from playing with good players to the best player in the world.
Having spent most of his career in the West, he had seen Crosby on highlights far more than on the ice. Two things jumped out at him:
First, the forecheck: “I didn’t anticipate he’d be that tenacious on the forecheck,” Stempniak said. “You think of him making all those great plays you see on TV, but he’s great on the forecheck, getting to loose pucks and beating guys to open areas. He has a really north-south game and lets his skill take over when he has that space.”
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Second, the speed: “The biggest surprise is he’s able to pick up pucks at full speed anywhere,” Stempniak said. “If a puck’s two feet behind him, he doesn’t break stride. He’s able to pull it up from behind him. I think [that is] one of his biggest strengths. You try to put a puck in an area; he wins the race. Even if it’s not a perfect pass, he’s able to somehow get the puck and keep his speed and create odd-man rushes.”
Stempniak has spent six games with Crosby. He has six points in his last five games. He had a goal and two assists Tuesday night in a 5-1 win over the Dallas Stars.
“It’s getting better every game,” Stempniak said. “Last game was by far the most comfortable I’ve felt. I think early on it can be hard. You just want to get Sid the puck whenever you can. He makes plays happen. I think I realized that you’ve got to play your game and skate and move your feet. When the opportunity’s there to get him the puck, you’ll see it and make the play. You can’t just stop skating and try to unload it to him. The other team knows you’re trying to get him the puck.”
THIRD PERIOD: Giroux even more vocal, fiery and productive than usual
Crosby might have a lock on the Hart Trophy, but Giroux should be one of the runners-up at this point. He hurt his hand in the off-season in a golfing accident. He got off to a slow start along with the rest of the Philadelphia Flyers. He didn’t make Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics. Yet he has rocketed to fifth in the league in scoring with 71 points, as the Flyers have put themselves in playoff position under coach Craig Berube, who replaced Peter Laviolette early in the season.
Giroux has five goals and 14 points in his past eight games, as the Flyers have gone 6-2-0.
“He’s been a tremendous leader as of late,” said teammate Matt Read. “Since the Olympic break, he’s the hardest-working guy everywhere you go. He’s the first one here every day, and in his mind, it’s win, win, win at all cost. And any mistakes you make, you hear about it on the bench from him. He just wants perfect from everybody.”
Giroux has always been a vocal, fiery leader, but Read said this is unusual even for him.
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“The passion in his voice, he wants it more than ever right now,” Read said. “Something about it right now, you can just see it. It’s fun to be around and witness as a teammate. He’s playing great right now, and hopefully our team can rally around him and keep going here.”
Thanks to the new playoff format, the odds are better that the Penguins and Flyers will meet in the playoffs. Giroux outplayed Crosby in 2012, when the Flyers won a wide-open six-game series and Laviolette famously referred him as the “best player in the world.” Giroux had four points to Crosby’s zero over the weekend as the Flyers beat the Penguins twice by a combined score of 8-3. The teams meet once more this regular season. Another playoff matchup would be delicious.
OVERTIME: Where Ray Ferraro’s NHL career ended, Landon Ferraro’s began
Ray Ferraro remembers May 11, 2002. The St. Louis Blues were eliminated from the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, and though he hadn’t said anything publicly, he and his family knew. His 18-season NHL career was over.
He walked out of the dressing room, along the white cinderblock wall and around the bend to the Zamboni area, where family and friends always wait after games behind red metal barricades. His sons Matt and Landon were waiting, then 13 and 10. Matt was quiet, as usual. Landon had his Blues hat pulled down over his eyes to hide his tears.
Fast forward to March 18, 2014. Ray flew from his home in Vancouver to Toronto to cover a game as a TSN analyst. When he arrived, he received text messages from Landon, now a 22-year-old forward who had been called up by the Wings. Landon didn’t know if he was going to make his NHL debut that night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Joe, but there was a chance. He was going to warm up.
Ray scrambled onto another plane and flew to Detroit. When he walked into the Joe, he passed the Zamboni area and the red metal barricades. Not much had changed. So much had changed.
“I’m like, ‘Man, he was standing right there,’ ” Ray said.
This time Ray was a family member of a player. This time he was the one in tears. He hurried to watch Landon warm up, and he sat in Section 103 as Landon did indeed make his NHL debut, playing 9:45 in a 3-2 win. (Ray didn’t have to wait by the Zamboni afterward, though. He was able to meet Landon in the dressing room.)
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Ray made his NHL debut in 1984-85 for the Hartford Whalers against the Boston Bruins, but this, he said, was “better.” He was a father who was proud of his son. He also had perspective.
“When you’re playing, you don’t even realize it, because that’s just what you do, right? You play,” Ray said. “You dreamed of playing in the NHL, and then you are [in the NHL]. I think all players are kind of naïve to the fact that they’re all going to play. We all thought we were going to play. We all figured we were going to play.
“Yet I’ve seen Landon, like all these other kids … They’ve worked their whole life to get a chance. And so, as much as I was excited flying here about the game, I kept thinking about him as a little kid and all the rinks we’d go to and all the …”
“It’s just …”
“It’s a pretty incredible feeling,” Ray said. “I get choked up just thinking about it.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
-- NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan’s report to the general managers at their meeting last week focused on boarding – what generally rises to supplemental discipline, what doesn’t. On Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Alex Killorn hit the Leafs’ Paul Ranger, who went into the end boards headfirst. Killorn received a major for boarding and a game misconduct; Ranger went off on a stretcher and to the hospital. But Killorn did not have a hearing with the department of player safety. Ranger turned just prior to contact and put himself in a vulnerable position, contributing to the violence of the contact with the boards. Killorn turned his skates as he made contact with Ranger, an indication he was trying to adjust at the last second.
-- At their meetings last week, the GMs discussed redefining a “distinct kicking motion” so goals would be disallowed only if a player lifts his blade off the ice to boot the puck into the net. That would make the standard clearer and increase scoring without compromising safety. On Tuesday night, the Leafs’ Nazem Kadri booted the puck into the net. The goal was disallowed correctly under the current interpretation of the rule. But Kadri did not appear to lift his blade off the ice. Next season, that kind of goal might stand.
-- Joel Quenneville almost certainly will end up second in wins among NHL coaches. He became only the third to reach 700 on Wednesday night when the Chicago Blackhawks beat the St. Louis Blues, 4-0. He is 82 behind Al Arbour. Considering the ’Hawks have averaged more than 40 wins per season under him, he should pass Arbour in 2015-16. He’s 544 behind Scotty Bowman, though.
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